Prosecutors call former Saddam-era judge back for further questioning in trial

The former judge who sentenced 148 Shiites to death in the 1980s insisted the suspects confessed and received a fair trial as prosecutors called him back for questioning Thursday over a crucial point in the trial of Saddam Hussein.

Awad al-Bandar, one of Saddam's seven co-defendants who testified last month, was cross-examined for a second time over the 1984 trial of the Shiites before his Revolutionary Court.

Wearing a red checkered traditional headdress, al-Bandar stood alone in the defendants' pen, appearing nervous as chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman and prosecutors questioned him.

Saddam was not in the courtroom. A day earlier, the former president was cross-examined by prosecutors for six hours for the first time in the six-month trial.

Prosecutors are seeking to show that al-Bandar's Revolutionary Court gave the 148 Shiites only a cursory trial on charges they tried to assassinate Saddam in the town of Dujail in 1982 and that Saddam approved their death sentences even though many had nothing to do with the shooting attack on him.

"It was a legal and a just court," al-Bandar insisted. "I was keen to carry out justice and I hoped that the defendants would be found not guilty .... May God be my witness, it made us happy whenever a defendants was released."

But he acknowledged that none of the 148 in the Dujail case were found innocent, but said they had confessed to trying to assassinate Saddam "with instructions from the government of Iran to overthrow the regime in Iraq."

"There were defense lawyers and they were given the chance to present their defense. All the defendants were present in the court. ... They confessed before me and the ruling was issued," al-Bandar said. "If I, as a judge, issue a sentence in accordance with the law, should I be punished?"

Saddam and the seven former members of his regime face possible execution by hanging if found guilty over the crackdown launched against residents of Dujail after Saddam's motorcade was shot at as it passed through the Shiite town in 1982. Hundreds including women and children were imprisoned, some of them saying they were tortured, and 148 Shiites were killed.

The defendants have insisted their actions were a legal response to the assassination attempt. But prosecutors have sought to show the sweep went far beyond the actual attackers.

In his testimony Wednesday, Saddam insisted he was convinced that the 148 were guilty, but evaded questions about how closely he looked at the evidence.

Asked if he had read the evidence against the men before referring them for trial, Saddamreplied, "If the constitution requires the head of state to review documents before referral, then I abided by it." Pressed by prosecutors on the point, he snapped, "I have answered."

After the men were sentenced to death, "I had the right to question the judgment. But I was convinced the evidence that was presented was sufficient" to approve the sentences, he said.

Chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi asked Saddam if he was aware that 28 of the Shiites sentenced to death were under 18 and presented identity cards showing some were minors. Prosecutors have said an 11-year-old boy was among those killed.

"I sentence an underage Iraqi to death? I wouldn't do it even if you were to carve my eyes out," Saddam said.

But he added, "Is it the responsibility of the head of the state to check the IDs of defendants and see how old they are?" and argued that identity cards can easily be forged. "You can buy IDs like this in the market."

Wednesday's session was the first opportunity prosecutors have had to directly question Saddam on the charges. The former leader cooperated with the court at times, grinning at the chief prosecutor and reciting poetry to the judge, whom he casually addressed by his first name as "Mr. Raouf."

But at times, he was sharp and combative, bickering with Abdel-Rahman and denouncing the court as "illegitimate." He attempted to tap into Sunni resentment of the Shiite-led Interior Ministry, which many Sunnis accuse of backing death squads.

The Interior Ministry "kills thousands of people on the streets and tortures them," Saddam said.

"Don't venture into political matters," Abdel-Rahman admonished him.

"If you are scared of the interior minister, he doesn't scare my dog," Saddam retorted.

"Don't you know that now children and women are being killed?" he said, referring to the country's current violence. "Now, the bodies are being thrown on the street as if they were dogs. ... An Iraqi is not a dog."

This week, the tribunal indicted Saddam and six former members of his regime on separate charges of genocide for a campaign against Kurds in the 1980s that killed an estimated 100,000 people.

A separate trial will be held on those charges, possibly beginning in 45 days, though some officials have questioned whether the tribunal will be able to conduct two trials simultaneously. In any case, it means a drawn-out legal process amid continued violence and political wrangling over the formation of Iraq's next government, the AP says.